Study Finds Almost 20 Percent of Adults Turn to Sleep Meds – Here’s What to Know Before You Try Them

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Looking for a solution to get a good night’s rest or trying to stay awake throughout the day? If you’re like many people, you might find yourself reaching to sleep meds to help you drift off.

A new survey from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found nearly one in five, or 20 percent, of U.S. adults took some form of sleeping medication in 2020. 

The study also found that 8.4 percent of respondents reported reaching for sleep medication in the past 30 days – a jump from the 4 percent that the NCHS found the last time they conducted this survey, in 2010.  

Here’s what to know about the study – and how to figure out whether sleep meds may be right for you.  

The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t be taken as medical advice, and it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from a trained professional. Please talk to your doctor or a medical professional for any sleep medication needs. If you have any questions or concerns, please reach out to your doctor. 

What the Study Found

Researchers examined data from 30,549 American adults from a nationally represented household survey. They defined sleep medication as taking any medication – prescription or over the counter – to either stay awake or fall asleep.

They found that: 

  • Women are more likely to take sleep medication compared to men and their use of medication generally increases with age. 
  • Women and men 65 and older are most likely to be using sleep medication. 
  • Men with a higher family income were less likely to use sleep medication.
  • White men and women were most likely to take sleep medication and Asian men and women were least likely to take sleep medication. 

Overall, 10 percent of respondents reported taking medication “some nights,” and 2.1 percent reached for it “most nights.” 6.3 percent reported taking medication every night over a 30-day span.    

Is Sleep Medication Use on the Rise? 

The last NCHS report, from 2005-2010, found that 4 percent of people reported taking sleep meds in the past 30 days. In the new survey, that number jumped to 8.4 percent.

However, a 2022 study published in Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine actually found that between 2013 and 2018, the use of sleep medication had significantly decreased by 31 percent. The lead researcher, Dr. Christopher N Kaufmann, believed this decrease was due to an increased awareness of the risks certain sleep medications pose. 

Kaufmann told the University of Florida Health newsroom in 2022, “A number of medical organizations, advocacy groups and policymakers have also strongly discouraged the use of these drugs to treat insomnia due to potential adverse outcomes associated with their use. There are highly effective behavioral treatments available that are growing in popularity.” 

So why the increase? Unsurprisingly, the pandemic may have played a big role.

How Covid-19 Impacted Our Sleep  

The pandemic wreaked havoc on people’s daily lives and schedules. While we still have a lot to learn about the long-term impacts covid has had on our sleep, it’s not surprising that many people reported an increase in anxiety or sleep problems, such as insomnia, or difficulty falling or staying asleep. 

That’s to say nothing of people who developed sleep problems, or “covidsomnia,” after getting covid. A 2021 study found that people with long covid had higher rates of insomnia than those who had never had the virus.  

Dr. Cinthya Pena Orbea, a sleep medicine specialist, told the Cleveland Clinic that sleep disorders are a common symptom among those who’ve had covid. “They report insomnia, fatigue, brain fog and sometimes we even see circadian rhythm disorders.” She added that some people experience sleep-related symptoms for up to 12 months after contracting covid. 

Research is ongoing, including an International Covid-19 Sleep Study, which is gathering additional data on the rise of sleep problems from having the virus, but the majority of studies point out that Covid-19 has caused sleep disturbances, including developing insomnia. 

How to Figure Out If Sleep Meds Are Right for You

First, think about what kind of sleep issues you’re experiencing. Are you generally getting good sleep but occasionally find yourself tossing and turning? You might see an improvement by simply making some minor lifestyle tweaks, such as: 

  • Drinking up: No, not alcohol. Try a glass of tart cherry juice before bed. Cherry juice contains tryptophan, which is converted into a compound called 5-HTP in your body – and 5-HTP helps your body produce melatonin. In fact, some studies suggest cherry juice could be just as effective as melatonin supplements at improving your sleep. Chamomile tea is another good option. “The chamomile plant contains apigenin, an antioxidant that attaches itself to the brain receptors and reduces anxiety while providing a sense of drowsiness,” Dr. Edibel Quintero told Sleepopolis in a previous interview.
  • Journaling it out: If you struggle with anxious thoughts circling your mind or have a constant to-do list in your head, this might be for you. Studies have shown that sleep journaling is beneficial for sleep. “Knowing that your ideas and concerns are addressed by placing them on paper allows your subconscious to find peace and get a good night’s rest,” Cynthia McKay, JD, MA, LAC, MFT, told Sleepopolis in an earlier interview.
  • Creating a sleep routine: If you aren’t already practicing good sleep hygiene, this can be a great starting point. Having a consistent wake and bedtime can allow your body to understand when to release chemicals like melatonin to prepare itself for sleep. 

However, if you’ve given that a shot for a few weeks and don’t experience any improvement, or you find yourself tossing and turning at least three nights per week for at least three or four weeks, you might have insomnia – and it might be time to talk to your doc about other options. 

One limitation of the study is that the researchers didn’t distinguish between whether people were, “primarily using prescription drugs, over-the-counter treatments, or supplements such as melatonin,” Everyday Health reports.

However, most experts recommend against prescription sleep medications to initially treat sleep problems, according to Dr. Shelby Harris, Sleepopolis’ director of sleep health. “For the vast majority of people, cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) should be the first-line treatment for insomnia,” she adds.

For various reasons, though, this often doesn’t happen. This can often be due to a lack of information about where to go for CBT-I, not knowing about CBT-I, the cost of treatment, or not having access to qualified providers, Harris adds. 

Given CBT-I a try and don’t feel like it’s working? At that point, you might be a good candidate for sleep medication, though Harris also recommends speaking with your doc about any other potential issues that could be worsening your sleep problems, such as sleep apnea or anxiety. 

“Sometimes, if your anxiety or depression is strong enough that it makes complying with behavioral treatment for insomnia a challenge, then talking with your doctor about treating either the sleep issue and/or depression or anxiety can be of use,” she says. 

There are several kinds of commonly prescribed sleep meds, such as: 

  • Z-drugs: These include zolpidem (this is the generic name for Ambien), zolpidem CR (Ambien CR), eszopiclone (that’s Lunesta), and zaleplon (Sonata) – these have all been approved specifically to treat insomnia. 
  • Orexin antagonists: These are a newer group of meds, and include brands such as Belsomra, Dayvigo, and Quviviq. These tend to be effective for people who haven’t responded well to z-drugs, Harris says. 
  • Antidepressants: These are meds that might have a sedating effect at low levels that don’t make them quite therapeutic enough to treat depression, but can help with insomnia, Harris notes. “I see these a lot as they are quite safe to use, they’ve been around for a very long time, and many patients respond well to them, especially older adults,” she says.
  • Benzodiazepines: These tend to be older sleeping pills (Valium is a good example). Some common anxiety meds also fall into this category. When these hit the market in the sixties, they were seen as a big improvement over barbiturates. But in recent years, doctors have moved away from prescribing these due to the risk of dependence or addiction. According to WebMD, they also have a black box warning against using them with opioids, as they can increase your risk of overdosing. 

Your doctor will work with you to figure out which meds will be the best fit for your sleep needs and lifestyle and for how long you might want to take them. Generally, it’s not great to be on prescription sleep meds long term, because they can increase your risk of falls or accidents, Harris notes, though she stresses that everyone’s needs will differ.  

“We try to have people on medication for the shortest amount of time, at the lowest dosage possible – and combining with CBT-I really helps with that in many people,” she adds. “That being said, it is a risk/benefit discussion to have with your doctor as getting very little sleep long term isn’t ideal either, especially when other non-medication approaches have been tried but don’t work well enough.”

Julia Medina

Julia Medina

Julia is a Staff News Writer for Sleepopolis. From sleep news and education to the latest sleep trends, her goal is to keep you informed about what's going on in the world of sleep, dreams, mattresses, and more. Julia graduated from Wake Forest University with a degree in communications and minors in film and sociology. In her free time she loves exploring new cities, relaxing with a good tv show, and getting some good quality sleep.

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